​For newborns in distress in rural hospitals, for travelers in car wrecks, for injured wilderness explorers, for farmers and ranchers wounded on the job, and for so many more Montanans and visitors, Mercy Flight has been a critical element of survival.

“Mercy Flight is a godsend,” one Choteau dad said after his children were injured in a utility terrain vehicle accident. “I was happy to have them take my princess to Great Falls.”

Monday, Jan. 16, marked the 40th anniversary of the first Mercy Flight flight, which was Jan. 16, 1983.

Before the program launched, crews from Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana National Guard flew sporadic medical rescue flights, but the advent of Mercy Flight ushered in a new era of life-saving work.

The first step toward an air ambulance in northcentral Montana came in 1972, when Montana Deaconess Hospital Medical Center established an air transport system to fly critically ill newborns and their mothers to the hospital’s new six-bed Neonatal Intensive Care Unit through an arrangement with the military. 

Then the Deaconess and Columbus hospitals teamed up to launch North Central Mercy Flight, the first joint project between the hospitals that would later merge to become Benefis Health System.

For the first time, the hospitals had a dedicated helicopter, which was based alternately at each facility for two-week periods.

Today, Benefis Mercy Flight is one of Montana’s most advanced air ambulance systems, with a medical jet, helicopter, and ground ambulance — as well as a highly trained crew making a critical difference for people in crisis across the region.

“I had the ultimate faith in that flight team. They didn’t hesitate,” grateful mom Brittany Meyer said after her premature son Trustin was flown to Seattle Children’s Hospital for neurosurgery to remove spinal fluid and pressure around his brain after brain hemorrhages. “We are beyond thankful for everyone involved.”

Mercy Flight is supported by donors and those who buy Mercy Flight license plates. The plates have raised more than $100,000 for the program. Benefis Foundation donors also provide training opportunities and made possible the 2020 purchase of the critical care transport, a box ambulance that helps Mercy Flight teams reach patients when weather grounds aircraft.

Mercy Flight typically has 800-1,000 flights a year.

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